Following the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, substantial scrutiny was directed at the 300,000 Chinese immigrant population of Italy, with many Italians expressing concern about the number of Chinese migrants and tourists who continued to fly to and from Italy with virtually no restrictions in place.
Despite the coronavirus originating in China, many NGOs, journalists and politicians tried to claim racism was the motivating factor of Italians instead of a justified fear of coronavirus spreading in the country.
It was also not the first time that legitimate grievances from Italians about the country’s connection with China were falsely presented as nothing more than bigotry.
Ever since Chinese migrants began arriving in Italy in significant numbers in the 1980s, Italians have expressed concern about Chinese failing to integrate into Italian culture, Chinese businesses ignoring safety rules and hiring cheap illegal migrant workers, and anger over tax evasion leaving Italian hospitals and schools short on funding.
Far from being nativist criticisms based on jealousy over Chinese success, these claims are backed by hard data, criminal cases, and government sources.
Italy’s China connection
Italy not only has the largest Chinese population in Europe, but also features the continent’s highest volume of Chinese travelers, with five million visiting the country each year.
When the first reported case of coronavirus in Italy turned out to be a couple from Wuhan who arrived in Milan’s airport on Jan. 23, the extraordinarily high volume of travelers from China became highly relevant. While many Chinese travel to the country as tourists, many others have deep connections with the country, including businesses, families, and homes.
The vast majority of Italy’s 300,000 Chinese immigrants live in the northern part of Italy, which also happens to be the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. In fact, Milan, which is in Lombardy, the Italian region where the most coronavirus victims have died, is also home to Europe’s largest population of Chinese immigrants, many of them with a direct connection to Wuhan.
Starting in the 1980s and continuing for decades, the owners of Italian textile and leather goods companies factory owners sold out to Chinese buyers. Italy then permitted 100,000 Chinese workers from Wuhan and Wenzhou to move to Italy to work in the factories. Over 3,200 businesses in Prato alone focused on making low-end clothing, shoes and other accessories all with materials imported from China to sell to low-end and mid-price retailers across the globe. Before the outbreak, direct flights ran regularly between Wuhan and Northern Italy.
Chinese in Italy funnel millions back to China in tax evasion cases
Tax evasion and the cash economy of the Chinese migrants who live in Italy is a topic that has continuously arisen. Some 50,000 Chinese work in Prato, many in textile firms which depend on the labor of illegal Chinese immigrants. These Chinese businesses are often accused of ignoring safety rules and evading taxes. Many Italians accuse Chinese community of using Italy’s schools, public services, and hospitals but refusing to contribute money for them.
Chinese undercut Italian employers with illegal immigrant labor
Police also targeted a firm that helped Chinese come to Italy to work illegally. This firm would help Chinese owners make fake hires and then provide them false payslips to help the migrants obtain residence documents. Once they received a residency permit, the worker would be officially fired, but in reality kept on working illegally.
According to Reuters, the “investigation also unveiled alleged criminal association, defrauding Italy’s social security and pensions agency, inducing public officials to make false declarations.”
The raids resulted in massive protests from the Chinese community.
This use of illegal labor had a real effect on other Italian producers. The New Yorker showed that a pair of pants made by Chinese firms using illegal immigrants in Italy can undercut Italian production facilities using legal labor and produce the same goods for up to a fifth less, which only helped fuel bankruptcies for Italian textile producers who were playing by the rules.
Many other schemes stemming from the Chinese community still remain somewhat of a mystery. In 1991, government and law enforcement officials became perplexed when it became apparent that Chinese people in Tuscany simply weren’t dying. There were no bodies and, mysteriously, no deaths being recorded. The regional government began investigating why not a single Chinese person had officially been recorded as dead in a span of 12 months in Prato or neighboring towns.
Fast forward to 2005, and the government was still unsure why Chinese people weren’t dying. In fact, in that year alone, more than a 1,000 Chinese people were registered in the Prato area, but only three deaths were recorded.
According to the New Yorker, Italians locals believed that Chinese gangs were “disposing of corpses in exchange for passports, which they then sold to new arrivals, a scheme that took advantage of the native population’s apparent inability to tell any one Chinese person from another.”
Many Chinese live in a parallel society in Italy
The letter read, “We are 600 honest workers who feel as if we were already citizens of your great country.”
Italians are not the only one who noticed a lack of integration from Chinese in Italy
An acclaimed Chinese artist, Liu Xiaodong, included painting of Chinese residents in a exhinbition called “Migrations” in Florence.
Liu said he surprised with the Prato Chinese and their slow adaptation to Italian life.
“They have been there mostly for at least a couple of generations and still they are very closed off,” the artist told the South China Morning Post.
“They have their own customs and traditions and are still very separate from the local population. This model of migration is also problematic.”
Similar parallel societies involving the Chinese are not unique to Italy. The estimated 2 million Chinese in Africa have built their own factories, shops, and schools that are often segregated from the Africans they share countries with. In some cases, they even build entire “mini-China” cities:
Next to Lagos, Nigeria, Chinese developers have built a walled-off “special economic zone”–basically a separate city, with separate rules designed to attract investors–based on a model they’ve used inside China for the last 30 years. After Shenzhen became a special economic zone in the 1980s, it went from a small town of 20,000 to, by some counts, 15 million today.
“We need the Chinese community to respect the law and integrate. We cannot have ‘free zones’. We will keep up inspections to clean up this immense production system.”